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TESOL 2021 Coffee Talk: Encouraging Open Discussion & Debate in Language Classrooms

March 25, 2021

Session Description: Bring a beverage and join us for casual conversation about the real-world topics you discuss in your classroom and how you create an environment that facilitates open discussion and debate.

TESOL 2021 got off to a rocky start technically, but we were grateful that the stars aligned just in time for us to host our first ever Coffee Talk.

The best part of TESOL every year is catching up with teachers who are actively working in the field, especially ones who rely on ESL Library and have important ideas and feedback to share. This year, we invited teachers to join us for an informal chat about discussion and debate in the language classroom. We prepared a short introduction and a list of questions, and the amazing teachers who joined us filled in the rest! 

Here are some of the questions we discussed:

  • What real-world issues do you discuss in your classrooms? 
  • How do you find out what your students want to talk about?
  • Are there some topics that you are hesitant to discuss or would not discuss?
  • Do your students have the language they need to discuss and debate relevant topics?
  • What do you do when discussions or debates get heated?
  • How can you make your students feel comfortable sharing their varying viewpoints?
  • Do you share your own personal opinions, or do you act solely as a facilitator/guide/listener? 
  • How important is reflection after a class discussion or debate? How can teachers encourage reflection?

Here is a short summary of a few key points teachers made in our conversation:

  • Teachers need to pay close attention to their students to understand their interests. What do they carry with them (e.g., skateboards) or wear (e.g., concert Ts)? What do they discuss in their own languages? Some teachers start with an open discussion period.
  • Many teachers agreed it is tough to discuss real-world topics with low-level learners (though many of the students really want to). We talked about the need for students to have the foundations first. Talking about familiar topics (family, health, school, community) is a stepping stone before getting into controversial topics like politics or crime.
  • One teacher said she asked students what issues they would like the president to focus on. This is how she discovered issues that were important to her students.
  • Some teachers felt that cultural topics (holidays, festivals, traditions) were a good starting point, even for low levels. Others suggested using pictures, collaborative boards, or videos. 
  • One teacher recommended putting multi-level students in small groups to help lower-level learners get their points across. In groups, they can work on a writing piece together (sometimes relying on their L1) and then share it with the class. 
  • Everyone agreed on the importance of sentence frames (and we shared some resources from our Sentence Stems section).
  • Some teachers said they talk about anything and everything with their students, including sensitive subjects. Other teachers said there are some topics such as "crime" or "politics" that they avoid. One teacher said he was only allowed to cover subjects from the textbook. 
  • Many teachers mentioned that the location they teach in determines whether or not their students are comfortable discussing certain topics. 
  • Teachers said that in a group setting, they focus on being facilitators and remaining neutral. Their role is to help students find the language and to help teach respect (turn-taking, listening to others' opinions, etc.). In a one-to-one situation, this may be different since students often expect their teacher to be their conversation partner.
  • Teachers expressed concerns about the pandemic. In addition to technical problems, many students are not comfortable going on video or using their microphones. Students are experiencing a language slide, especially in speaking. Some just join a room and leave, so teachers have to think of activities to keep them engaged.
  • We shared the exciting news that our new Speaking Task is almost ready. This new task type will give students a chance to reflect on discussion topics from class that they may want to talk more about. It will also give students a chance to practice using new language in a comfortable space. 
  • One teacher expressed how much her students love Flipgrid. We shared that we are now a FlipGrid Discovery partner!

The hour went too fast, and not all of the attendees got a chance to share their great ideas or questions. Fortunately, some visited us at our booth to pick up some free resources and continue the conversation. 

A Restorative Circle can help students have difficult conversations. In this setting, the teacher has students sit in a circle and poses a question to the group. There is a “speaking stick/object” and only the person holding it can speak. The next speaker can add to the previous comment, answer the question themselves, or use the “pass” feature if they don’t feel comfortable speaking. This provides a comfortable and safe place for students to contribute to difficult conversations! Can be done virtually as well using FlipGrid or live in a Zoom or Google Meet! —Crystal

Here are some more questions we didn't get a chance to cover: 

  • How do you find out if your students are comfortable or ready to talk about a certain topic or issue?
  • Which current events have you discussed in class recently?
  • Do you have any recommendations for where to find authentic materials for discussion? 
  • Do you teach your students about bias and separating facts from opinions? 
  • Do you teach your students about using credible sources? Do you talk about fake news?
  • Would you discuss the following…? (gun control, puppy mills, inclusive language, war, slavery, memes)

"One of the worst things we can do as educators is feel that we cannot tackle controversial topics in our classrooms. We are not preparing our students to encounter and engage with the complicated world..."

—Dr. Clint Smith, TESOL 2021 opening keynote speaker

At ESL Library, our main mission has always been to encourage open communication around the world. Like Dr. Smith, the opening plenary speaker, we believe that language teachers have an important role to play in doing this. We'd like to say a special thank-you to all of the teachers who joined us for this very important conversation at TESOL. 

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Comments (1)

Tara Benwell(Author)

In case you were not at TESOL and unable to watch the opening plenary with Dr. Smith, he answered a question about how teachers can help students feel comfortable talking about sensitive subjects in the classroom:
1. Create a culture of trust by sharing your own vulnerabilities.
2. Model how to engage with others that you disagree with in a respectful way.
3. Be honest when you don't know the answer. "Let's find out!"
4. Explain to your students that you are learning partners. You are also learning from them.
5. Use affirmations so that students learn to trust their own voices.

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